Who needs evidence?
I walk into an operating theatre in my local hospital with my mate Jim. There is a patient lying on the table, about to receive triple bypass surgery. I stroll up to the doctor in charge, and look over her shoulder. I turn to Jim. “If I was going to do this, I would go in through the patient’s back. I seem to remember that’s what Mr Smith taught us in Year 11” I say to him.
I turn to the doctor. “Hey, mind telling me how you are about to proceed with this surgery, what tools you’re going to be using?”.
“Sure!”, says the doctor, illustrating to me the plan for the operation, a plan she has been taught over an entire career and education. She’s keen to share her understanding of the situation, to educate someone who seems equally as keen on the topic. It’s a fascinating procedure. I listen to everything she says, but I know it’s all wrong. I actually extracted every piece of junk from the body in the game Operation without touching the edges, at the age of 12. I know my shit.
“Cool”, I say. “That’s just your opinion though. I got an A* in GCSE biology (I didn’t), and quickly browsed over a wiki-how guide to open heart surgery on my way here. Now here’s my take on what we should do.” Pushing her aside, I use the sharp cutty thing to slice my way in, closing my eyes so I don’t have to look at all that icky blood. Yuck. Jim leans over to me, patting my back.
‘You’re doing a great job’, he says. ‘Just ignore that doctor’s protests, both of us share the same opinion on how to do this operation, so we outnumber her two to one. This is democracy in action dude’.
Job done, I say, turning to the distraught doctor and her team, as the patients heart monitor tanks and flatlines. I nailed that, I think to myself as I stroll out of the hospital, high-fiving Jim. In fact, I’m sure that doctor probably learnt a thing or two about triple bypass surgery from me. The sounds of ‘CLEAR’ being shouted in the distance behind me soundtrack my exit into the carpark.
Post-factual society. Alternative truths. Echo-chamber. FAKE NEWS. These buzzwords get thrown around more than the word cuck on a Twitter account with an eagle for a profile picture.
“What does it even mean?”, I asked myself as I stared blankly at the cream coloured wall in front of me at the urinals in Leeds station. “What does any of it even mean?” I look down. A little bit of pee splashed back onto my shoes. Bother. Zipping up my fly and delaying the oncoming existential crisis for another day when I didn’t have to travel on Southern Rail, my mind wondered to the now infamous statement that came out of Micheal Goves’ perfectly circular mouth as I wash my hands:
“People have had enough of experts”.
Inspiring stuff from the G-man. Fair play to Mike. In light of recent events, it seems clear that our experts are getting things slightly wrong, at least in politics. But this statement taps into a slightly worrying trend: a casual disregard for experts across all fields.
Political forecasting is a tricky business, and I’m not stepping in here to defend any of the terrible predictions made over the last year and half. But let’s leave politics aside for a hot second.
When I was 10, my mum bought me a copy of Rome: Total War. This combined with reading Horrible Histories lit a fire in me. Fast forward eleven years and I now study Classics, with a focus on the Roman Empire. Neat right?
Perhaps the most famous Classicist knocking about right now is Mary Beard. Head of the Cambridge Classics Department, she has had an astonishing career. You may have seen her on TV trecking around and about in Pompeii, or read her online blog, or any of her fantastic books. If not, I would strongly recommend picking up a copy of her most recent book, SPQR. At the very least, drop her a follow on Twitter.
Enough banging on. The reason I want to talk about Mary Beard is as follows: she is held in high esteem within our field, and for good reason. She has spent her life learning about the topics she discusses. Now often on Twitter, Mary is challenged or asked to comment on various aspects of Roman history, and her interpretation of them. People often approach her for her take on various modern day situations and their relevance and parallels to Roman history. This is brilliant; discussion on a topic should always be encouraged, how else can you learn? Challenge away! The problem arises when someone challenges the information with their own opinion, backed by absolutely zero evidence.
Perhaps the most famous example of this was by Arron Banks, top UKIP donor, who tried to draw a link between immigration being the main reason for the collapse of the Roman Empire. When challenged by Beard, he declared: “I studied Roman History extensively — you don’t have a monopoly on history!” This is true, as Mary would be the first to admit. But Mary is don of the Classics department at Cambridge.
Come on. Just think for a second. It’s just frustrating to read. This line of argument is common on Beard’s, and many experts, timelines. Examples here, here and here. It should be fairly basic to understand that if you are going to engage in a discussion or argument with someone, you should have evidence to support your view. This evidence should come from a reputable source, not your neighbour Jeff or your aunt who saw it happen once, or a gut feeling. Be rigorous in collecting your evidence. As Beard herself states:
Experts should be questioned. Ask their opinion on things, ask how they came to that opinion. Engage them, engage each other. Be open to evidence that will change your view on a subject.